If you find yourself feeling like Debbie Downer, make a list of the things you're most grateful for. Dr. Marla B. Cohen, Psy.D., P.C. shares her thouhts on "An Attitude of Gratitude" and how "Seeing the Good Helps You Feel Better."
Many years ago, I was at home with my now teenage daughter, who was an infant at the time. I was having one of those days as a new mom where everything seemed overwhelming and never-ending. There was laundry to fold, dinner to make, and floors to sweep, but instead I was lying in the middle of the living room, half-listening to Oprah. As I enjoyed those few stolen moments for mommy, my daughter crawled around, pulling everything down from the shelves and making the cataclysmic messes that babies and toddlers are given to. As my bleary eyes surveyed the piles of blocks and books surrounding me, she pulled at my milk-stained t-shirt, demanding to be nursed. I recall feeling exhausted, resentful, cranky, and in dire need of a hot shower or long nap (preferably both). It was then I heard Oprah mention her gratitude journal.
As I listened, Oprah described her nightly practice of keeping a bedside journal of the five things she was grateful for each day. Similar to the “three good things” practice I described in my last article, this list was a compilation of both the enduring blessings and the simple surprises for which Oprah was thankful.
As I heard Oprah speak of the value gratitude had to her, something hit me; I was bemoaning my station in life as a frazzled new mom instead of recognizing how incredibly fortunate I was for this opportunity. I remember taking a moment, right then and there, to reassess my situation. Within a minute I was able to feel an overwhelming sense of appreciation, and I crafted a quick gratitude list of my own. It looked like this:
I am grateful for …
- My healthy, active child
- My body’s ability to produce milk and sustain her
- My warm, comfortable (however messy) home
- The bounty of toys and books my daughter has to occupy her
- The privilege to stay home and lounge around with my baby
As if by magic, this practice shifted my perspective and changed my attitude for the rest of the day. After that, it became a regular and important practice for me. I’ll admit I haven’t always kept a formal gratitude journal, but I have tried to maintain a grateful mind-set and really appreciate the gifts and grace of my life. I have found this simple approach to be the single most effective and powerful strategy for keeping a positive vibe going, even during the toughest of times.
It wasn’t long before the field of positive psychology began to add the science to Oprah’s advice. Robert Emmons and his colleagues, positive psychologists at University of California Davis, conducted several studies on gratitude. In summary, these researchers found that those who practice gratitude are happier, more optimistic, and more satisfied with their lives and relationships. Grateful people sleep better, report fewer symptoms of illness, and experience lower levels of stress and depression. Gratitude is viewed by positive psychology as one of the cornerstones of well-being, and gratitude journaling is widely considered one of the most effective happiness practices you can adopt.
Here are some suggestions for keeping your own gratitude journal:
Decide for yourself whether you’d like to establish a daily or weekly journaling practice (the research has found that both are effective), and set aside a few minutes at your specified times to record several things for which you are grateful. Try to journal at the same time each day or week until the practice is an established habit. I like the idea of making this a sacred activity for yourself, by choosing a special notebook and pen reserved for your gratitude entries. If you’re really creative, you can decorate your book with photos, stickers, quotes, or other embellishments. If not, a few sheets of loose-leaf paper will do just fine. If you’re tech-savvy, there are also a number of smartphone apps and websites designed to help you keep an online gratitude journal. I like the Gratitude Diary app for the iPhone.
Keep it fresh:
To achieve the greatest benefit from your gratitude journal, keep it fresh. Consistently update your list with novel and specific things that you appreciate. For example, rather than simply saying, “I’m grateful for my family,” consider discrete characteristics, like your son’s sense of humor, your daughter’s thoughtfulness, or your husband’s mastery of the grill. Think about the things that made this day different from yesterday. For example, on Monday I was grateful to have extra time to snuggle with my youngest daughter in the morning. Today, I am thankful to have gotten her to school in the nick of time after waking up late.
Reflect on the positive:
It’s natural to appreciate the aspects of ourselves and our lives that are clearly positive. Start by considering what you know is good about yourself, your life, and the people in it. Bring in all of your senses; appreciate the things you are able to see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and experience fully as a result of being alive. It may help to have some sentence starters, and to vary your answers with each entry. Here are a few for you to try:
I’m grateful that I am able to ______________.
I’m grateful to have experienced ______________ today/this week.
I’m grateful to have (person/thing/experience) which brings me comfort/peace/joy/love.
I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to ______________.
I’m grateful for the lesson of ______________.
Consider what’s NOT wrong:
Sometimes the easiest way to feel a burst of gratitude is to consider the problems we could have, but don’t. We all experience times when we feel overwhelmed, when we’re caught up in our problems and lost in the less-than-ideal aspects of our lives. The more we notice and dwell on the negative, the more negative we will find. At those times, I like to remind myself that while whatever troubling issues I’m dealing with are real, there are plenty of things that could be wrong but aren’t. No matter what may be happening in your life right now, if you are reading this, there are at least three problems you could have but don’t. Start by being grateful that you are able to see, that you can read, and that you have access to a computer. The more you can appreciate what is NOT wrong, the more you will begin to notice everything that is good and right.
The word “appreciation” has two meanings. It can be used as a synonym for gratitude or thankfulness, as in, “I’d like to show my appreciation for your interest in my column.” It can also mean to grow in value, as in, “The stock portfolio showed appreciation in the last year.” Both meanings apply to the practice of gratitude, in that what we focus on becomes what we see. Therefore, what we appreciate appreciates. Look for the good, be thankful, and before too long you will reap the rewards of wanting the very life you already have.
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